Addis Ababa owed much of its importance to its geographical position on the Horn of Africa, and, in particular, to its relative ease of access to and from the French-occupied Gulf
of Aden Port of Jibuti, which handled a significant portion of Red Sea and Indian Ocean trade.
It was indeed on account of this access that Menilek granted his first railway concession on 11 February 1893. It was very different in scope from the line which eventually emerged. It envisaged the establishment – and the grant to Menilek’s Swiss technical aide and diplomatic adviser Alfred Ilg – of a 99 year monopoly for a railway, conceived as operating on three separate but related stretches of line: The first was to run from the French-administered port of Jibuti to Harar, along the principal commercial centre of eastern Ethiopia. The second stretch was to go from Harar to Entoto, the country’s former capital which had only been replaced as capital by Addis Ababa a few years earlier. The third stretch was to go from Entoto to the White Nile, which Menilek then claimed as his Western frontier.
The significance of three of the above six names changed materially in the next few years. The age-old commercial town of Harar was thus soon eclipsed by Dire Dawa, itself a child of the railway. Entoto, as we have seen in an earlier article, was replaced as the Ethiopian capital by Addis Ababa – and the unfolding of the European Scramble for Africa resulted in Menilek abandoning his claim to the White Nile.
Since the railway was to operate outside Menilek’s domains, in territory recognised as part of the French Protectorate, it was understood from the outset that the French authorities would grant a kind of supplementary concession to cover the railway’s operations in French colonial territory. Ethiopia’s independence was then, however, not universally accepted, this being the time when Italy claimed a Protectorate over the entire country on the basis of Article 17 of the much contested Wechale Treaty of 2 May 1889.
This impasse was overcome by Menilek’s victory at Adwa on 1 March 1896 after which the French Government, with remarkable promptitude, granted permission on 27 April 1896 for the railway to operate across French colonial territory.
The granting of these and several other concessions and letters, which are outside the scope of the present article, facilitated and coincided with a significant growth in Jibuti’s commercial contacts with the Ethiopian interior, and most significantly, with Addis Ababa.
Construction work on the railway began in October 1897, with the erection of the Jibuti railway station, offices, stores, staff-housing, and other buildings. This coincided with the shipping in of rails, sleepers, telegraph poles and cement. The sleepers, sometimes referred to in the trade as Menileks, were for reasons of economy no more than a metre long – and were -unusually – made of iron to protect them from being eaten by termites.
There was also a large influx of both skilled and unskilled labour, from many countries. This included local Oromos, Afars and Somalis , as well as Arabs, Armenians and Indians, besides Europeans: Greeks, Italians, and Frenchmen.
Many transport camels were also acquired.
Building operations meanwhile continued fairly steadily until the end of the century when it became apparent that the railway company was facing acute financial difficulties. This led the French Government taking over the line in 1902. Construction work was then temporally suspended, but the Ethiopian ownership of the project was later re-affirmed in a second Railway Concession which Menilek granted to his personal physician, a well-known medic, Dr Vitalian from Guadeloupe, on 30 January 1908.
Trade on the railway, previously by camel, consisted largely of the export from Ethiopia of ivory, coffee and hides and skins; and the import of textiles, clothing and other manufactured goods, including fire-arms, with which Menilek was enabled to maintain his country’s independence.
Such trade was sometimes carried out by rail as well as by camel or other beast of burden. This was most notably the case after the railway reached Adama which was within easy access of Addis Ababa. Ethiopian and other entrepreneurs took advantage of the capital’s proximity to make use of the railway as far as it went at any particular time – and supplemented it with a two-way transport service based on horse-drawn trucks. These once again transported articles to and from Addis Ababa which would have been impossible to handle without the help of wheels.
The value of the railway – and its superiority over the camel transport which it steadily superseded – can be seen in several directions.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the coming of the railway resulted in greatly increased speed – and safety – of transport. This led in turn to a significant expansion in the number of passengers, which, continued to increase, e.g. from 20,560 in 1915 to 194,030 in 1930.
Secondly, the railway kept its clients in close telegraphic contact with the outside world. This enabled merchants in the Ethiopian interior to keep abreast of financial developments in Aden, Bombay, Cairo and elsewhere. Such information was particularly useful when the country’s silver currency (notably that based on the Maria Theresa thaler) was subject to much speculation.
A no less significant advantage of the railway lay in its ability to transport heavy, cumbersome and perishable goods. Prominent in this category was corrugated iron sheeting and all kinds of heavy machinery, including railway equipment, which could not be carried by camel or mule. Such articles therefore appeared on the Ethiopian scene only after the railway’s arrival in Dire Dawa in 1902.
All this led to a steady expansion of trade, which continued to rise during the first years of the railway’s operations. Exports thus rose from 10,885 tons in 1910 to 24,450 in 1930, and imports from 17,431 tons in 1915 and 42,162 in 1930.